Obama: All should aspire to be Mandela

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

President Obama on Thursday called the late Nelson Mandela “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will ever share time with on this earth.”

Speaking at the White House about an hour after the legendary South African leader’s death was announced, a somber Obama said Mandela’s “fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others” will stand the test of time.

Obama said Mandela set an example that “all humanity should aspire to.”

“He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages,” he said of South Africa’s first black president and anti-apartheid leader, adding that his journey from a prisoner to a president “embodied that human beings and countries can change for the better.”

The president said he considers himself to be “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration” from Mandela, adding that he couldn’t imagine his own life without the example that Mandela set.

Obama, who studied Mandela’s writings and words over the course of his adult life, said his own “very first political action” was a protest against apartheid.

“The day he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” he said.

Obama met with the leader during a visit in 2006, when he was still a senator. First lady Michelle Obama visited with the leader five years later, but the president was not on that trip.

Read more from The Hill.